The DIY hero discusses his new album as Selector Dub Narcotic, hating playing pubs and how he's just making "Calvin Music"
It’s hard to imagine what modern music would look like without Calvin Johnson. Like Bowie, he really does boast a back catalogue that is chock full of seminal, genre-defining work.
His first band, The Beat Happening, shaped the future of indie rock; their stripped-back egalitarian sound paving the way for the whole twee rock movement. His follow up, the Go Team, brought together some of the key movers of ’90s rock, with drummer Tobi Vai and guitarist Billy Karren eventually going on to form Bikini Kill while a young Kurt Cobain filled in on guitar. Even his dress sense has caused lasting waves, his ripped jeans and baggy sweaters becoming the unofficial uniform of grunge.
But it’s the label Johnson founded that has been his most important and lasting contribution to the indie music scene. Since opening its doors in 1982, K Records has built a soaring reputation as an important jump off point for many of the most influential artists working in offbeat pop, indie rock and DIY scenes, giving the likes of Beck, Modest Mouse and Built to Spill their starts. Elevating cassette releases to a near art form, K has also been an important incubator for riot grrrl and the second wave punk.
Yet despite all his achievements, most people would recognise the name Calvin Johnson as the best wide receiver the Detroit Lions currently have, but then, that’s always been Johnson’s style. If Bowie flamboyantly led from the front, then Johnson has acted more like some one-man illuminati, subtly directing and shaping things from behind the scenes. Over the years he’s dabbled in many sounds, from heart crushing acoustic pop, through rockabilly and alternative rock to the oddball funk of the Dub Narcotic Sound System. Through all this, his trademark, downbeat baritone delivery has remained unchanged. It’s as if he’s a character superimposed onto a show reel – Johnson remains the same; the music changes around him.
For his latest record, he has returned to his Selector Dub Narcotic moniker, the name he’s been using for his DJ sets since the mid-90s. An evolution of the disco, trip hop, dub hybrid he perfected with Dub Narcotic Sound System, his new album, ‘This Party is Just Getting Started’, adds more strings to his bow. Songs like ‘Hotter than Hott’ and ‘Let’s Spend Some Time Together’ might add jazz and even samba-like elements, but mostly it is a record that sees Johnson layering a lush, pop sheen to stripped down, no wave bass lines and tightly wound funk rhythms.
It’s a remarkably polished-sounding record by Johnson standards. Eschewing a live band for a world of samples and electronic beats, it’s a record that moves into almost pop-like spaces and is an ambitious leap from the normal frugal sounds you’d find on his recent Hive Dwellers output. Self-released at a time when K records is struggling with well-publicised financial issue, it’s telling that Johnson remains committed to pushing the envelope while simultaneously releasing joyous, weirdo party anthems.